Funny business: the novelist Miriam Toews. Photo: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty
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Funny, defiant and furious: the tangled tale of two sisters

In Miram Toews’s new novel, the ability of literature to act as an antidote to despair is tested to the limit.

All My Puny Sorrows 
Miriam Toews
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £12.99

The Girls from Corona del Mar 
Rufi Thorpe
Hutchinson, 256pp, £14.99

“It was my father and my sister who constantly beseeched my mother and me to read more, to find succour for life in books, to soothe our aches and pains with words and more words,” remarks Yolandi (Yoli) Von Riesen, the narrator of Miriam Toews’s new novel, in which the ability of literature to act as an antidote to despair is tested to the limit.

Among the astonishing quantity of books referenced in this most bookish of fictions is Richard Holmes’s memoir Footsteps, which Yoli reads “as though somewhere in its pages are contained the directions to hell’s only exit”. The passage that particularly catches her attention is Holmes’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft: “There was something, I suppose, like a wild waterfall in the headlong, broken, plunging quality of Mary’s life.”

The description applies with eerie exactness to Yolandi’s beloved elder sister, Elfrieda, who is brilliant, beautiful and broken. Alas, it doesn’t help solve Yolandi’s urgent dilemma: how to answer Elfrieda’s request that Yoli accompany her to Switzerland, where she intends to end her life.

Suicide has become for Elfrieda a desire as compelling as the passion for music that drove her as a rebellious teenager to flee the chilly disapproval of her small Canadian Mennonite community and seek a career as a concert pianist. Now in her forties, she is a celebrity with an international career, a devoted manager and a family that is as determined to prevent her from dying as she is to succeed.

If you were to compare the sisters’ circumstances, it would be Yolandi rather than Elfrieda who might seem the more likely to succumb to depression. By contrast with Elfrieda’s elegant trajectory to private and public success, Yolandi’s life has been a muddled affair. She is large and freckled, rather than small and exquisite. Her eyelashes, unlike Elfrieda’s, are not so long that snow settles on them in winter. She is the author of a not-very-successful series of young adult novels. She has a teenage son, Will, and daughter, Nora, from two failed marriages.

What time she can spare from the exacting process of thwarting Elfrieda’s repeated suicide attempts is spent in a series of unsatisfactory love affairs. It is a life punctuated by small failures; yet through Yoli’s character runs a streak of resilient, mocking optimism that acts as a counter-charm against the urge to self-annihilation that is an ingrained family trait.

Suicide runs in the Von Riesen family. Various cousins took their own lives and Elfrieda’s and Yoli’s father, an idealistic primary school teacher, killed himself by kneeling in front of a train. These are not imagined events. In her previous novels and in an award-winning memoir of her father, Swing Low, Toews has described her childhood in a Canadian Mennonite community and her father’s suicide. Her elder sister, Marj, killed herself in 2010, having asked Miriam to help end her life.

“For me, writing is an act of survival,” Toews has said. Her novel – funny, defiant and, when it comes to the heroic in­difference of the medical staff charged with Elfrieda’s care, furious – is an unsparing anatomy of the battle between the will to live and the will to die. Elfrieda’s musical talent apparently has no power to attach her to life – on the contrary, it seems to enhance her sense of fragility (she shares with King Ludwig I’s daughter Princess Alexandra of Bavaria the conviction that she has a glass piano inside her that may break at any moment). But words represent a “mixed message of hope, reverence, defiance and eternal aloneness”. As a teenager, Elfrieda planned to scrawl “AMP”, representing the words “all my puny sorrows”, a phrase from a poem by Coleridge, on landmarks across town as an act of defiant individualism. Her penultimate act is to ask her husband to fetch her some books from the library. “Books,” thinks Yoli, “are what save us. Books are what don’t save us.”

The theme of salvation by narrative haunts Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, a coming-of-age fiction that explores the unequal contest between human will and indifferent fate. Mia and Lorrie Ann are teenagers growing up in the 1990s in the Californian coastal hamlet of Corona del Mar. As the novel begins, Mia seems to be heading for a crash. She is 15 years old and recovering from an abortion, having lost her virginity and become pregnant in the same moment.

Lorrie Ann, by contrast, has all the virtues of a fairy-tale heroine. She is beautiful, clever, nice and – almost unprecedentedly in Corona del Mar – the child of a stable family. “In a way,” Mia reflects, “Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was . . .”

It is the destiny of fairy-tale heroines to suffer and there is something gleeful about the way in which Thorpe sets about heaping misfortune on Lorrie Ann. “It was,” Mia thinks, “like some bizarre postmodern rendition of Job.” From an unplanned pregnancy, which Lorrie Ann virtuously declines to terminate, there extends a grim sequence of catastrophe. While Mia flourishes, her friend suffers a series of lurid mishaps as elaborate and undeserved as the fanciful horrors of 17th-century revenge tragedy.

As in all good fairy tales, there is a slightly improbable ending that offers the possibility, if not of happiness ever after, at least of respite from misfortune. There are signs in Thorpe’s novel of a writer finding her voice: the binary structure is a trifle heavy-handed and the conclusion simplistic. Yet her depiction of female friendship is engaging and sharply observed. Seldom has Schadenfreude been more appetisingly packaged. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem